Work Hard, Not Much

It turns out that productivity may actually decline as workers put in longer and longer hours. So say many recent studies and articles addressing the relationship between the hours worked by an employee and the output she can be expected to produce.

A former recruiting candidate of mine shared just such an article from the Wall Street Journal a while back: “Radical Idea at the Office: A 40-Hour Workweek.” The piece focuses on the benefits of a fixed and capped work week to both the company (its ability to attract high-caliber applicants and pay lower compensation) and employees (clear expectations and work-life balance) and quotes John Pencavel, a labor economics professor at Stanford University, whose research indicates that increases in productivity from additional working hours decline above a certain threshold (read his study here).

These are not new ideas. That they seem new is further evidence of our growing obsession with being “busy.” Our resulting inability (or disinclination) to truly disconnect from work is causing us to confuse working a lot with working hard.

Working hard is not working non-stop. It is not running a manic, unceasing race to stay ahead of an ever-expanding inbox. It is not responding to every ring or buzz of a phone regardless of the hour. Truly hard work is not even within the capabilities of one who feels beholden to and at the effect of everyone’s agenda but her own.

The really efficient laborer will be found not to crowd his day with work, but will saunter to his task surrounded by a wide halo of ease and leisure. There will be a wide margin for relaxation to his day. He is only earnest to secure the kernels of time, and does not exaggerate the value of the husk… Those who work much do not work hard.

-Henry David Thoreau

Working hard evokes a focused attention and energy directed toward a specific project, task or goal, often one that is intellectually or physically challenging. And, as Thoreau seems to chide us, such an effort practically requires that the worker in question be given a limited amount of time each day (or week) to achieve a worthy goal.

The modern demands of legal practice may never allow most of us the time to “saunter” to our tasks, but if we are serious about doing great work and serving our clients optimally, we can at least aim to separate working hard from working much.

If you are a law firm associate or assistant general counsel, what is one small change you could make to your work day to work harder instead of more? If you are a partner, manager or executive, how might you incentivize your teams to emphasize the quality of their work product over the quantity of their time they spend in the office and on their smartphones?


A version of this post first appeared on Brian’s blog, Against the Grain.

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